D.C. charter school student wait list keeps getting worse

The DC Public Charter School Board released data yesterday regarding the student wait lists for the 2019-to-2020 term and you can just hear the frustration being emitted from the mouths of parents. I guess all you really have to read is the first sentence of the announcement to get a complete sense of the problem:

“There are 11,861 individual students on the My School DC lottery waitlists to attend one or more PK-12 public charter schools in SY2019-20, a 4.8% increase over last year’s 11,317 students and a 22.2% increase from the 9,703 students in SY2017-18.”

The board also pointed out that 67 percent of those on wait lists are for Performance Management Framework Tier 1 schools. It adds that 40 percent of open spaces are in Tier 1 schools. There is especially strong demand for Pre-Kindergarten to Kindergarten and the sixth grade. Dual-language charters are especially popular.

One student may appear on multiple wait lists.

Some of the schools with the largest wait lists and the number of students include Creative Minds International PCS, 1,030; DC Bilingual PCS, 1,403; District of Columbia International School, 1,565; Elsie Whitlow Stokes Community Freedom PCS – Brookland campus, 1,722; Inspired Teaching Demonstration PCS, 1,218; Latin American Montessori Bilingual PCS, 1,069; Mundo Verde PCS, 1,412; Two Rivers PCS – 4th Street campus, 1,659, Washington Latin PCS – middle school, 1,254, and Washington Yu Ying PCS, 1,168.

The wait list to get into a DCPS school is 9,437.

Even if the charters with significant wait lists wanted to expand or replicate there is absolutely nowhere for them to go. Commercial space, although exorbitantly expensive to rent, is not even available. Many DCPS facilities sit empty and a great number are grossly underutilized. Yet, the people we elect to represent us are doing nothing about this issue. Instead, they spend hours and hours in furious debate over what information a charter school must include on their website.

Good news from D.C.’s charter school movement

Let’s take a short break from talk of school closures, teachers’ unions, and transparency legislation to highlight a couple of good developments in D.C.’s charter landscape. First, last Friday the Washington Post’s Thomas Heath wrote a beautiful profile of Eagle Academy PCS’s Royston Maxwell Lyttle, principal of its Congress Heights campus. Mr. Heath wrote:

“His uniform is pure Wall Street: loafers, dress pants and crisp-collar shirt topped off with his signature bow tie.

‘It’s being there,’ said Lyttle, as he strolled through the school, which is 98 percent African American, on a sunny spring morning. ‘Being visible, knowing their names, learning handshakes, talking about better choices.’

His job is as much visual as it is verbal. ‘I am always in shirt and tie, trying to get them to ‘visualize yourself.’ When you see someone in shirt and bow tie, you see this person in a wonderful job.’

Lyttle takes students to World Wrestling Entertainment matches, makes connections and builds trust, trying to get them to relax and enjoy themselves. He hosts lunches in the cafeteria, a chance to mentor or just listen.

‘Students cannot learn if they are not socially and emotionally there,’ Lyttle said.”

The Post reporter has this to say about the challenges Mr. Lyttle faces at his school:

“Eagle Academy grapples with intractable problems in American society and illuminates the effects of the uneven distribution of wealth. Its student body — ages 3 to 9 — is from Congress Heights, one of the city’s poorest areas. Ninety-two students, or 14 percent of Eagle’s enrollment, live in homeless shelters. Sixty-four percent live in single-parent households. Twenty-two percent, or 152 children, receive special education. Some need counseling for years.”

The charter received a jolt last November when the annual Performance Management Framework results were released. For 2018, the Congress Heights location fell to a Tier 3 ranking. So the school jumped into action. According to Mr. Health, the big drop in test scores led to the firing of 26 teachers, who were replaced with 18 new ones.”

I think the world of Mr. Joe Smith, the CEO/CFO of Eagle Academy. He would never allow this score to stand. He cares about the children too much for this to happen.

In other news, Washington Latin PCS has announced that it is going to replicate. Beginning next year it will open a new school that will start with the fifth grade that will eventually go up to twelfth. Other details about the expansion are extremely limited. For the 2018-to-2019 school year Washington Latin had a wait list of almost 1,600 children. Leaders at the school apparently feel like they have a moral obligation to be able to accept more students. How many other charters with excessively large wait lists feel the same way?

Washington Post finally comes to defense of charter schools but does not go far enough

Today the editors of the Washington Post come to the defense of D.C.’s charter schools in opposing the transparency law introduced by Council member Charles Allen. They point out that due to the popularity of these public schools with parents, this city’s charters have been able up to this point to escape the attacks that have characterized this movement in other localities. However, with the introduction of Mr. Allen’s statute the situation has now changed. They write:

“The opening volley in this effort is legislation being promoted as a well-meaning effort at transparency and accountability. Sponsored by D.C. Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6), the measure would subject the independent nonprofit charter schools to the open-meetings and Freedom of Information Act requirements that apply to D.C. government entities.

We are firm believers in sunshine in public matters, but this legislation — which seems to be taken from the national teachers union playbook on how to kneecap charter schools — is not designed to benefit the public or help students. It ignores the fact that the D.C. Public Charter School Board, which oversees the city’s 123 public charter schools, is already subject to both the open-meetings law and freedom-of-information requests. The board, which has earned national renown for the rigor of its standards, requires charters to disclose financial information, including how they use resources from the government and what they accomplish with those resources. Charters participate in state testing and federal accountability programs, and the charter board leads the way in providing comprehensive evaluations of charters and the job they do in educating students.”

First of all the Post has it only partly right. Charters in the nation’s capital have not been subject to the same false diatribe that these schools in other cities, such as Los Angeles and Chicago, have experienced. However, we just went through a horrible and highly distracting unionization episode at one of our oldest networks. The editors seem to have had this recent escapade on their minds when they were constructing their piece:

“It is telling that one bit of information sought in the legislation proposed by Mr. Allen — who seems not to have consulted with charter officials and declined to discuss the bill with us — is a listing of the names of all charter school employees and their salaries. It’s hard to see how that’s critical to student learning but easy to see how it might help unions in their bid to organize at charter schools.”

In addition, the newspaper’s editors say nothing about the bill being advanced by education committee chairman David Grosso that contains its own transparency requirements. They observe that charters receive only 70 percent of the funding of the traditional schools, and therefore having to answer to Freedom of Information Act requests would be burdensome for their small administrative staffs. However, the data required to be shared by Mr. Grosso also imposes an unfunded mandate on this sector. The Council should worry about the academic performance of the 48,000 students that are enrolled in DCPS facilities and leave the charters to the DC Public Charter School Board. This body has its own list of onerous reporting requirements.

Not an education post today, sort of

Justin Wm. Moyer of the Washington Post revealed last evening that Childrens National Health System next year will open a pediatric health research facility on the site of the old Walter Reed Hospital. The 12-acre Children’s National Research and Innovation Campus will include an outpatient clinic.

The $190 million center is being build with a gift of $30 million from the
United Arab Emirates. Mr. Moyer added that “the UAE gift was announced the same day Children’s National said it would partner with Johnson & Johnson to build a 32,000-square-foot facility on the new campus called JLabs @ Washington, DC. In a collaboration with the Department of Health and Human Services, JLabs will focus on medical responses to chemical, biological and nuclear threats, as well as infectious diseases. “

The grant from the UAE comes almost exactly a decade after Joseph E. Robert, Jr. engineered a $150 million contribution from the same nation. Mr. Robert is not mentioned in yesterday’s Post article, which is exactly how he would have wanted it. The Washington, D.C. businessman and philanthropist, who passed away from brain cancer at the end of 2011, much preferred operating behind the scenes. The New York Times covered his achievement in 2009 that led to the formation of the Sheikh Zayed Institute for Pediatric Surgical Innovation at the hospital’s current site:

“The institute’s goals were hatched in the home of Joseph E. Robert Jr., who made a fortune selling the real estate held by failed savings and loans in the early 1990s.

Mr. Robert’s son had undergone more than nine hours of surgery at Children’s National several years before that. His son has since become a Marine, and Mr. Robert donated $25 million to the hospital for a surgical center. A few years after that, he was sitting around his dining room table with some hospital executives, discussing how to make surgery less frightening and painful for its patients and their parents.

Last fall, armed with the business plan that came out of that initial discussion, Mr. Robert visited Abu Dhabi. He had become friendly with the ruling family and with the crown prince, Sheik Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan.

‘We were eating dinner off of TV trays, in front of a bank of televisions, watching the news, and I just started talking about the evolution of the plan and how important a concept I thought it was, and he was immediately interested,’ Mr. Robert said.”

Mr. Robert was also instrumental in support of Washington D.C.’s Opportunity Scholarship Program, the plan that provides private school vouchers for children living in poverty in the nation’s capital. Just recently, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos announced that she would like to double the size of the OSP from $45 million to $90 million. In trying to figure out how to get this program passed by Congress in 2004, Mr. Robert promoted the three-sector approach that gives equal funding to vouchers, DCPS, and charter schools. Mayor Bowser has stated that she supports the OSP because of the money it provides to the traditional schools and charters, as well as the additional choices it gives to parents regarding the education of their children.

When he was alive Mr. Robert was a fierce advocate for those less fortunate then himself, and he enlisted many from the fields of politics, entertainment, business, and healthcare to give of themselves and their pocketbooks to join his endeavors.  He founded Fight for Children which has raised over $300 million for young people in the Washington, D.C. area. He is credited with bringing in over a billion dollars for children and education.

As we have seen in the news in the last week, his legacy continues.

U.S. Education Secretary goes bold on D.C. voucher plan; others go weak

Another Democratic Congress, another chance to attack the D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program, the private school voucher plan for kids living in poverty in the nation’s capital. Last week, the Washington Post’s Jenna Portnoy revealed that D.C. Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton, together with the the House Oversight and Reform and Education and Labor committees, wrote a letter to U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos seeking information expressing concerns about the OSP. According to the reporter:

“Lawmakers said they want to ensure that federal civil rights laws and safety regulations apply to students in the program, according to the three-page letter to DeVos from Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.), Education Committee Chairman Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.) and Norton.

They requested details about schools participating in the program, including whether they are accredited, whether they are religiously affiliated, how much of their funding comes from the voucher program, whether they have tested drinking water for lead, how many students are disabled and English-language learners, and how many students did not graduate or transferred to another school.”

The questioning comes as Ms. DeVos has moved to increase the number of vouchers awarded to low-income students by raising the budget of the program from its current $45 million dollars a year to $90 million.

The legislative SOAR Act that contains funding for the OSP has been supported locally by Mayor Muriel Bowser and D.C. Council Chairman Phil Mendelson because it provides equal dollars to private school vouchers, charter schools, and DCPS, following the three-sector approach championed by the late businessman and philanthropist Joseph E. Robert, Jr. Ms. Portnoy includes in her article the following reaction from the Bowser Administration regarding a challenge to the OSP:

“The program ‘has been instrumental in supporting the District’s three-sector approach on education by providing more opportunities and choices for our students and families,’ Bowser spokeswoman LaToya Foster said in a statement. ‘We have called on Congress to reauthorize and fully fund [it] so that we have the resources we need to continue ensuring every family in every neighborhood has a fair shot at high quality educational opportunities.’

Choices for families are needed now more than ever. The 2019 D.C. lottery just concluded, so we are expecting anytime this year’s charter school student wait list data. However, for the 2019-to-2020 school term there are 9,437 students on DCPS wait lists and last year there were over 11,000 pupils wanting to get into charters who could not. Having your child admitted to your desired public school continues to be a tremendously frustrating experience for District of Columbia families. Ms. DeVos is on exactly the right track.

Not so brave are those trying to defend charters from those that want to see them become a part of history. The latest assault comes in the form of a Trojan Horse complaint about the lack of transparency around charter school board meetings and finances. The D.C. Council has gotten into the act in the form of a bill introduced by Charles Allen that would force a long list of unfunded mandates on charters. In reaction, last week Council Education Chairman David Grosso brought forth an alternative that would force charters to comply with Open Meeting laws and detail expenses for all to see. The legislation is supported by all the remaining council members and, incomprehensibly, by FOCUS. My god, didn’t we just recently close a charter school in part to rid our movement of union activity? Couldn’t someone have similar guts to tell the Council to stay out of a school sector over which it has no authority?

FOCUS Gala 2019: Building Our Future

My wife Michele and I were extremely fortunate to be able to attend last Thursday evening the 2019 FOCUS Gala held at the elegant North Hall of the Eastern Market. The rain was coming down in cold cylindrical pellets outside but inside the space was warm from all the handshakes and hugs given and received from men and women who for years have worked day in and day out to transform public education in the nation’s capital.

Inducted in the FOCUS Hall of Fame on this night were David Domenici and James Forman Jr., co-founders in 1997 of Maya Angelou Public Charter Schools and The See Forever Foundation. They were provided with plaques from Irene Holtzman, FOCUS’s executive director, but in a sense there is no amount of recognition that would be too high for these individuals. We know that many charters enrolls students that other schools have found it impossible to educate, however Maya Angelou takes this mission to an entirely singular level. This school teaches those that have been in jail. From the school’s website, as described by the Washington Post:

“In the District of Columbia, Maya Angelou Public Charter School reaches out to students who have experienced substantial trauma in their lives by maintaining contacts with probation officers, social workers, special education advocates and community groups. Classes are small, expectations are high and a range of supportive services is in place to help kids make it.”

One of the schools that it manages actually sits inside D.C.’s long-term juvenile prison. In 2007, Mr. Domenici, after serving for a decade as both principal and executive director of Maya Angelou schools, became this facility’s founding principal. The narrative about Mr. Forman contained in the event’s glossy brochure states that the school, “which had been an abysmal failure, has been transformed under the leadership of the Maya Angelou staff; the court monitor overseeing D.C.’s juvenile system called the turnaround ‘extraordinary.'”

Also joining the esteemed group of individuals that comprise the Hall of Fame was Dr. Ramona Edelin, the long-time executive director of the DC Association of Chartered Public Schools. Her words on receiving this award are still echoing in my mind:

“We are under attack. If you don’t know it, please tune in to the mobilization that is taking place right now to avoid the erosion of your visions. The erosion of your autonomy. The erosion of the methodology you have chosen to make real – the promise you have given to your school family, your students, their families and the communities of which you serve. That’s what we are here for – that’s what I am here for. I am here for you because you do that better in the District of Columbia than anyone else does. Thank you. This is a centuries old struggle. It is not new. None of the obstacles, none of the issues will be a new one if you know your history. But we’re on the precipice of real change. You are having stunning success with the same students everybody else in this nation is ringing their hands and saying, “oh my, what can we do with them.” Well they were us, they are we and you know that and you are training, educating, developing leadership and making an impact. Now we need you to also answer a call to advocacy and policy when needed. It’s our job. We will do it. Everyday, day in and day out. But there are those times – and this is one of them – when we need you to join with us in that struggle. Let me just end with the words of the movement right now, ‘STAY WOKE.'”

Yes, we are under attack; from the unions, the press, politicians, and traditional school supporters. It has not been this bad since our local movement started over two decades ago. And what exactly are we being disparaged for doing? Here is how Maya Angelou characterizes its graduates:

  • Positive contributors to their families, communities and society
  • Young adults who possess mental-toughness and the skill-sets to be successful
  • Progress in future academic endeavors and compete in the work force
  • Leaders and change agents who will have the ability to compete in an ever changing society and beyond
  • Young adults who desire to excel and who are self-reliant
  • Young adults who are college and career-ready
  • Matured to become a well-rounded, culturally-aware adult
  • Adults who appreciate diversity
  • Self-sufficient members of society
  • Able to compete academically in an ever-changing environment

Enough is really enough.

Bowser administration admits that DCPS revenue outside of UPSFF is illegal

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser released her proposed 2020 budget this week and it has some good news for charter schools. First, she is requesting that the charter school per pupil facility fund be increased another 2.2 percent to $3,335. This would be the second year in a row that this number would go up by this proportion. The jump is important, because as Two Rivers PCS’s executive director Jessica Wodatch explained at last night’s 2019 FOCUS Gala, the cost of construction in the nation’s capital is rising tremendously.

Still, I’m not quite sure about the Mayor’s strategy here. It seems like instead of turning over vacant DCPS buildings to charters she is encouraging them to rent space in the commercial real estate market. Wouldn’t it be preferable to have these schools lease from the city instead of turning taxpayer money over to developers? What am I missing?

In addition, the mayor’s budget blueprint also has the per pupil expenditure rising by 2.2 percent. However, Irene Holtzman, FOCUS’s executive director, stated that this number is insufficient:

“FOCUS is pleased that Mayor Bowser delivered on her commitment to increase the facilities allotment for public charter schools by 2.2 percent. The predictability of facilities funding is crucial to public charter schools as they plan to make needed improvements to their buildings or lease facilities to accommodate their student bodies. This is a wise long-term investment that helps ensure that the nearly 50 percent of students attending public charter schools have buildings that enhance, rather than hinder, their experience.
 
Simultaneously, we are concerned that the increase to the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula (UPSFF) falls short of the needs of all D.C.’s students. The 2.2 percent increase in the base UPSFF does not keep pace with the District’s funding pressures or inflation, and increases the gap between the current level of funding and the city’s own definition of funding adequacy as defined in the 2013 report Cost of Student Achievement: Report of the DC Education Adequacy Study.
 
In addition, a broad coalition of advocates for children and youth have been working diligently to ensure that our schools have the mental health supports they need to manage the level of trauma experienced by our students. Not increasing the funding to support at-risk students  will leave schools scrambling to ensure that our most vulnerable students have the supports they need to be successful in school.
 
We urge the D.C. Council to remedy this gap in funding by making at least a 3 percent increase in the UPSFF, and, better yet, funding a 4 percent increase that, if followed annually, could get DC to ‘funding adequacy’ in five years. In addition, Council should prioritize increasing the at-risk weight to enable schools to continue to grow and strengthen the wraparound supports we know our students both need and deserve.”

I did some poking around the budget and I stumbled on something fascinating. Embedded in the document is an admission from the Mayor that all public funding for both charters and the traditional schools must come through the Uniform Per Student Funding Formula. Here is the exact language:

“The District’s public charter schools receive Local funding through the UPSFF. This system of funding was established by the District of Columbia School Reform Act of 1995 and was designed to ensure that all public schools across the District receive the same level of funding on a per-student basis, regardless of what neighborhood the school is in or where students live. The UPSFF is intended to cover all local education agency operational costs for District public schools including school-based instruction, student classroom support, utilities, administration, custodial services, and instructional support, such as curriculum and testing. The UPSFF is based on a foundation amount, which is then enhanced according to different weights for higher-cost grade levels and supplemental funding weights for students with special needs. The FY2020 UPSFF foundation increased 2.2% from $10,658 per pupil to $10,891 per pupil. The average cost per student, based on the proposed enrollment of 44,486 and a proposed gross budget of $898,494,213, is $20,197.”

In other words, the very argument that charters have been making for years that is contained in the FOCUS engineered funding inequity lawsuit against the city is affirmed in the administration’s own budget. Can we now settle this thing and reimburse charters for the approximately $100 million a year in revenue provided to DCPS that the other sector did not receive?

What is the next step?

Exclusive interview with Wendy Edwards, executive director Early Childhood Academy PCS

I had the great pleasure recently of visiting Early Childhood Academy PCS and sitting down for a conversation with the school’s executive director Wendy Edwards.  Ms. Edwards explained that ECA started in 2005.  She informed me that the Ward 8 charter is currently leasing space in two different small community centers with two different landlords.  One was built by former D.C. City Councilmember H.R. Crawford and is now managed by his son.  The Walter Washington Estates is located behind the school.  Ms. Edwards detailed that both locations of the school were opened simultaneously.  She recounted that the charter began with 110 students in grades pre-Kindergarten three and pre-Kindergarten four. The school has added a grade a year and now goes up to the third grade.  Approximately 254 students are currently enrolled at Early Childhood Academy PCS; one hundred percent of the children qualify for free or reduced meals.

This was the perfect time to pay a visit to ECA since the charter is currently building a brand-new permanent facility.  It is a fantastic story.  The Menkiti Group, a developer located in the Brookland community of Northeast D.C., purchased the long-vacant Johenning Baptist Church so that ECA could have a permanent home.  The situation reminds me of the Ezra Company that acquired abandoned warehouses at 705 and 707 Edgewood Street, N.E., so that the William E. Doar, Jr. PCS for the Performing Arts and D.C. Prep PCS, respectively, could operate at these locations.  Ms. Edwards wanted me to know that Karl Jentoft of TenSquare Consulting, was a tremendous help in securing the $19 million dollars in loans, including New Market Tax Credits, to secure this property and construct an addition.  She is also grateful for the great support from CityFirst and Chase National Banks.  The property will be a 38,000-square-foot facility and hold 300 students.  Since the new headquarters is located directly next door to one of the current classroom buildings, Ms. Edwards and I were able to take a walk over to observe the progress.  It is extremely impressive.  The new school, which ECA will own, will open this summer.

On our way back from the construction site I asked Ms. Edwards about the difficulties of teaching children living in poverty.  “Yes,” the head of ECA replied, “it definitely brings its own challenges.  If you are not able to tap into the social and emotional needs of the child, you will not get anywhere academically.  Many of these children have high ACE (Adverse Childhood Event) scores.  You must have a holistic approach with them.  Our staff has received Positive Behavior Facilitation training developed by Dr. Edna Olive.  But here is the bottom line.  It is your relationship with the child that dictates your bond with the child.  Your values and convictions drive the connection.  You have to be cognizant of who you are and your belief system.  If you don’t accept that these kids can learn like any other child, then it is not going to work.”

I then wanted to know more about Ms. Edwards.  “I came from DCPS beginning in 1978,” Ms. Edwards detailed.  “I’ve played a variety of roles.  I was an elementary school teacher, a special education coordinator, and an assistant principal.  I concluded my time with DCPS as the assistant principal of Raymond Elementary School in Northwest D.C.  In 2005, I learned that Early Childhood Academy had just been chartered and was seeking a head of school. I was hired as the founding principal.  The charter was actually opened by the Nation’s Capital Child and Family Development Center (NCCFD). At that time, NCCFD operated several Head Start programs throughout the city. We parted ways in 2007.  In 2010 I became the executive director and Thann Ingraham was promoted to principal.  I never thought that I would leave DCPS, but this opportunity has been absolutely perfect for me.” 

Our discussion then turned to learning from Ms. Edwards what her greatest challenge was once she transitioned into the executive director role.

“The biggest challenge,” Ms. Edwards answered without hesitation, “was comprehending that each charter school is a self-contained small business.  We had to be respectful of the public money we received and utilize it appropriately.  There were so many decisions to be made, it was really unbelievable.  I absolutely love the autonomy.” 

When I asked Ms. Edwards about her greatest accomplishment, she was also ready with a response.  “My greatest satisfaction,” the head of Early Childhood stated, “has been building a strong administrative team.  Most of these individuals have been with me for a decade; our current principal has been at ECA since we opened in 2005.”  Ms. Edwards added, “I’m confident this is why our school has been ranked as Tier 1 the last several years.  We have grown from where we were in 2005 but we have also had a lot of leadership stability.  The message has not changed over this period.  We want to provide developmentally appropriate models for our children.  Our goal is to teach the whole child.  Toward that end we want to attract teachers who have passion, compassion, and are smart.  We will then support them in continuing to mature and develop as instructors.”

I then requested of Ms. Edwards to provide me with other reasons for her school’s success.  “We talk about values a lot with the staff and with the children,” Ms. Edwards asserted.  “We know that you cannot talk about positive values if you do not display them.  The kids will pick up on this fact.  Kindness, respect, being able to politely express differences, these are hard lessons for our kids.  Our students don’t always come from neighborhoods where people talk things out instead of acting things out.”

“One of our efforts,” the ECA executive director opined, “is that we want our pupils to be in school.  Toward that end we provide free breakfast, free lunch, and a free snack for aftercare for all of our students.  Some of our parents didn’t grasp at first that their children needed to be here every day, especially in pre-Kindergarten.  For some parents, education did not serve them very well, so they don’t understand the importance of a good education for their children.  We are dealing with a very transient population.  About 45 of our families are homeless.  Others will change residences from the District to Maryland and back to the District again.”

Ms. Edwards revealed that the staff at the school will do whatever they can for the students.  “We have school uniforms,” Ms. Edwards remarked.  “But if the children come in without them we will provide them.  We also buy them for some families.”

Early Childhood Academy has two teachers for each classroom that range from a low of 13 children in a pre-Kindergarten class to 28 students per classroom in the third grade.  Differentiated learning is applied to all grade levels, according to Ms. Edwards.  “There is whole group and small group instruction in both reading and math,” the executive director offered.  “Every day between 8:30 a.m. and 9:30 a.m. the Response to Intervention period is implemented in all classrooms, during which time most students complete activities reinforcing previously taught standards, while struggling students are provided with targeted instruction.”

In other words, according to Ms. Edwards, “when you work at Early Childhood Academy, you are sort of all in.”

Eerie quiet at monthly meeting of D.C. charter board

Last night’s meeting of the D.C. Public Charter School Board can only be described as strange. Missing from the public comment segments of the last few months were the throngs of people supporting the teachers’ union from Cesar Chavez PCS’s Prep campus passionately demanding that the charter board force its schools to adhere to open meeting and Freedom of Information Request laws. I do not even think Christian Herr, the Prep teacher behind the collective bargaining agreement effort, was in attendance. It was as if the decision to close two Chavez schools and pass a transparency policy lacking two key components was a fait accompli. The charter school opponents must have decided that their time was better spent before the National Labor Relations Board or in front of the D.C. Council trying to place their stamp on the transparency legislation being introduced today by Charles Allen.

The session started with a longer than usual introduction by board chair Rick Cruz. He has now been in his volunteer position for one year. Mr. Cruz announced that his organization has received 11 applications to open new schools in the 2020-to-2021 school year, a gigantic increase over previous cycles. He said that in April there would be presentations by each of these groups. Mr. Cruz also informed the audience that last Friday a group of students from National Collegiate Preparatory PCS had come to the PCSB headquarters in an effort to reverse the decision to shutter their school. The board chair stated that he appreciated their efforts but that they could not now change a ruling that was based upon the poor academic performance this school has demonstrated over its history.

Lastly, Mr. Cruz revealed that the term is coming to an end for board member Don Soifer who had joined this body in December 2008. I have always greatly appreciated Mr. Soifer’s thoughtful and respectful questions of school representatives, and his strong defense of the autonomy of our local charter school movement.

At the conclusion of Mr. Cruz’s comments the board navigated through its agenda with few delays or detours. The most interesting part to me was the discussion around Friendship PCS’s takeover of WEDJ PCS. It turns out that this is not the typical assumption of management of one LEA by another as we have seen, for instance, with Friendship PCS’s decision to acquire IDEAL PCS. What is transpiring in this case is that the arts-integrated program of City Arts and Prep PCS is being transitioned over to Friendship’s Armstrong campus, along with many of its arts staff. Friendship will do this without needing to request an enrollment ceiling as it has space to incorporate the students from the site that is being closed. The move will result in some extremely fortunate charter being able to move into a truly beautiful school building at 705 Edgewood Street, N.E.

As foreshadowed, the discussion around the plan by Cesar Chavez PCS to close two campuses and consolidate high school students at its Parkside site was anti-climatic. With hardly a whimper the board unanimously went along with the plan, and just like that the first charter school in the nation’s capital to become unionized will become history this June.

Also passed without objection was the revised school transparency policy.

The longest dialog of the night involved an agreed-upon notice of truancy concern issued against Ingenuity Prep PCS. There is a recognized issue at this Ward 8 elementary school around ensuring that kids show up for class each day. It was mentioned by Aaron Cuny, a co-founder of the school and past CEO, when I interviewed him last October, and it was admitted to yesterday by the other co-founder and interim head Will Stoetzer present with board chair Peter Winik. I have to say that the school’s leadership gave little sign that they have a handle on this problem despite the expressed desire of this charter to reverse its slowly declining Performance Management Framework scores and become a Tier 1 facility so that it can replicate. The situation calls for the creation of a solid action plan that incorporates strategies utilized by other institutions teaching this highly at-risk population of kids.

In April comes the review of new school applications.

D.C. public charter board staff goes along with changes at Chavez PCS; chastising the way it was done

Tonight the DC Public Charter School Board is scheduled to take a final vote on the proposal by Cesar Chavez PCS for Public Policy to close its Capitol Hill High School and Prep Middle School campuses and consolidate its students at its Parkside High School location. The current Parkside Middle School will close at the end of next year due to low academic performance. The highly controversial move would eliminate the only unionized charter school in the District when Chavez Prep closes its doors.

The PCSB staff is in support of the decision by the school’s board of directors. They write:

• “It is within the school’s exclusive control to close campuses provided the school’s enrollment ceiling is commensurately reduced.

• It is within the school’s exclusive control to reconfigure campuses provided it remains within its enrollment ceiling and serves grades for which the local education agency (LEA) has been approved to serve.

• The amendments to the charter are technical and conforming changes that ensure the school’s charter reflects actions taken by the school that are within its exclusive control.”

While the charter has the authority to make these changes, the PCSB is not too happy about the way it has been carried out. It takes note of the public testimony against the campus consolidation and closures, and makes the following recommendation:

“As noted in the testimony, and further described below, the Cesar Chavez PCS board’s decision was made late and without any opportunity for community input. While this is within the school’s prerogative, the DC PCSB Board may wish to express through a resolution its disapproval of the manner in which the decision was taken, while taking note of the extraordinary time and effort invested by the school’s volunteer board as it sought alternatives to insolvency.” The staff continues:

“The LEA faces financial challenges, as further described later in this memo. The campus closure and reconfiguration decisions and communications were very close to the My School DC lottery deadlines of February 1, 2019 for high school applicants and March 1, 2019 for PK-8 applicants. This timing was difficult for families, as they were forced to evaluate other school options and make decisions for a new school in a minimal time frame. However, rising 9th, 10th, 11th and 12 grade students from both Chavez Prep and Capitol Hill are allowed to re-enroll directly into Parkside, rather than enter the lottery. DC PCSB enrollment specialists began working with families at both campuses on January 25, 2019.”

The proposed charter amendment that will be considered this evening includes an enrollment ceiling decrease from 947 to 847 students. It would also allow Chavez to re-open a middle school at the Parkside location beginning with the 2020-to-2021 school term, starting with the sixth grade only for that year.

In response to questions late last month from Ward 1 D.C. Coucilmember Brianne Nadeau about the lack of transparency and whether Chavez Prep could stay open another year to seek an alternative to closure, PCSB executive director Scott Pearson wrote back:

“We asked the board about the option of keeping Parkside Middle open for an additional year and were told that the school’s dire financial condition, caused by high debt and low enrollment, would not permit this option. We also asked about the reasons for the last minute decision and the lack of transparency around the making of this decision. The school’s board replied that they had been in difficult negotiations up to the final hour with the school’s bondholders over the school’s risk of default, and pursued every possible avenue to avoid foreclosure on the entire LEA. The school’s board reported that they were reluctant to make these deliberations public given the destabilization of enrollment and staff that they feared would occur as a result.”

The Chavez board has made the right decision in order to protect the future existence of the school. This charter management organization has been having academic difficulties for years and is now at risk of defaulting on its loans. It appears that it expanded too fast without first developing a deep bench of leadership capacity, a pattern we have unfortunately seen repeated many times within our sector.